Tour guides are leading Hong Kong travel industry in the wrong direction

Lau Ping Cheung says new regulations being introduced by the Travel Industry Council are mostly sensible, and opposition to them by some local travel agencies is hard to understand

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2016, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2016, 4:51pm

Earlier this week, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made a point, following an Executive Council meeting, that members of the tourism industry should cooperate and seek common ground.

His comments followed uncooperative action by some members of the tourism industry, in response to the Travel Industry Council’s tightening of rules aimed at better protecting visitors’ rights. New measures include a refund protection scheme, which allows the council to suspend the registration of shops under investigation by law enforcement agencies over possible violation of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, as well as measures to try to stamp out the practice of forced shopping under new directives next week.

READ MORE: Tour guides protest strict checks in Hong Kong by not wearing their licences

This is by no means a singular appeal by Leung, but one that is backed by significant public opinion. Yet some travel agencies have decided to go against this sentiment, possibly due to their vested interest in some of the registered shops.

Such shops are registered with the council through the travel agent concerned. Under the council’s new measures, they will provide full refunds to any dissatisfied visitors who return their purchases within six months (for mainland inbound tour groups) or within 14 days (for overseas inbound tour groups).

Tour guides have repeatedly made the headlines for forcing mainland visitors to make purchases at registered shops

Under the council’s regulations, tourist guides must not, in any way, coerce or attempt to coerce visitors into making purchases, or mislead or attempt to mislead them into doing so.

The reality, however, is rather different. Tour guides have repeatedly made the headlines for forcing mainland visitors to make purchases at registered shops, from which they then receive a commission. In one incident, a 53-year-old mainland tourist died after allegedly being beaten unconscious while trying to mediate a dispute that broke out between a fellow visitor and their tour guide.

Yet, it is also worth noting the impracticality and ineffectiveness of the council’s regulations that registered shops offer all group visitors full refunds within 14 days after a purchase. No business can operate in a financially sustainable manner if such a refund programme is actually put into practice.

It seems that the parties opposed to the council’s tightening of regulations are staging their uncooperative action based on fairly counter-intuitive grounds.

For starters, the Trade Descriptions Ordinance is in place to safeguard consumer rights, not least by keeping forced shopping at bay. But certain members of the tourism industry aren’t entirely happy about this.

Also upsetting them are the new requirements for tour guides to wear an identification card and for a similar identification document to be displayed on the tour coach. Their dissatisfaction is baffling, because such requirements are common in the tourism industry the world over.

READ MORE: It’s time to comply, Hong Kong commerce minister tells city’s renegade tour operators’ groups

The city’s tourism and retail industries suffered financially during the Occupy movement and later as a result of the anti-parallel-trade protesters’ harassment of mainland tourists – the latter which can only be described as narrow-minded extremism, given the demonstrators’ indiscriminate targeting of people with both physical and verbal assaults.

Therefore, it is of paramount importance that the council introduce reforms to the current regulations. Tackling vested interests between travel agencies and registered shops is a good place to start.

Lau Ping Cheung is a member of the Economic Development Commission and convenor of its working group on professional services